Copan, Honduras - The jungle air is hushed and cool, morning's stillness broken only by the comical squawking of technicolour parrots. Our small group, on a break from swinging cinder blocks for a development project in rural Honduras, has meandered down a sun-dappled path toward the ancient Mayan city of Copán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We emerge into the long central plaza where men were sacrificed to the gods. Stone stelas carved in the shapes of mystical animals, gods and monsters rise like sentinels from the green grass, presiding over altar stones gouged with deep grooves for channelling blood.
Our guide, an erstwhile soldier, journalist and musician with sharp eyes and a creased face, whispers to us about Copán's history and local wildlife. We lean in to catch Tony's words as he points to a small creature in the bush.
Some members of our group veer off in quiet pursuit, cameras at the ready as the rabbit-like animal noses its way though the underbrush.
Tony tells us the story of 18 Rabbit, Copán's greatest king, who ruled from 695-738 AD. His real name was Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil, and his glyph (carved symbol) appears throughout the ruins. He was the first Mayan king to preserve the temples of his predecessors rather than destroying them, and ruled over an age of prosperity, art and culture.
He met his end after losing a game of tlachtli, the Mayans' favoured sport, to a rival king. Promptly sacrificed on his own altar according to the custom of the day, the king was elevated, as a consolation prize of sorts, to the status of god.
The history of the Mayan civilization is only half-known; the jungle had reclaimed many of its cities and temples long before the arrival of European explorers. Copán was abandoned by 900 AD, as disease, crop failure and civil unrest triggered a slow diaspora of peasants deep into the hills of modern Guatemala and Honduras.
Melancholy settles around us as we ponder the empty city. One altar depicts Copán's 16 emperors, the city's last king, Yax Pasah, face-to-face with its founder, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo. Talisman in hand, he reaches forward through the generations, completing the dynastic circle of the Mayan empire.
Later we embark on a shopping tour of Santa Rosa de Copán, the town adjacent to the ruins, navigating through stalls heaped with beaded necklaces and imitation statues of 18 Rabbit. Some children thrust poorly made trinkets at me, their big brown eyes assessing my clean runners and digital camera. Santa Rosa has prospered from its proximity to the ruins, while other regions lacking an attraction like Copán to sustain them through decades of political unrest have not been so lucky.
That evening we stroll around Santa Rosa's central plaza, whose triangular stone arches echo the architecture of the nearby ruins. Families gather to chat as shrieking, laughing children race after each other through the square. Well-heeled couples on their way to dinner at four-star hotels step over barefoot drunks who leer at blond gringa backpackers. Taxi-mopeds roar through the narrow streets, rattling over cobblestones, whilee teenagers flirt in the shadows. The town is suffused with the aroma of fresh tostadas and the rhythms of Hispanic club music.
At night, we feel less conspicuous, less like tourists. After a day exploring the remnants of a vanished civilization, it feels good to sit quietly, soaking up the vibrant nightlife of modern Santa Rosa.